KNOXVILLE — Marquez North's breakout sophomore season never materialized.
It got off to a promising start for arguably Tennessee's most talented wide receiver, but a rash of minor injuries slowly squashed any hopes North had of erupting after a Freshman All-SEC season in 2013.
In the Volunteers' first three games of the season, the 6-foot-4, 221-pounder from North Carolina caught 14 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns, both against Arkansas State.
In the next seven games, he managed just 16 catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns and missed the final three games of the season to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
"The injuries I had, they were real nagging injuries," North said after Saturday afternoon's practice. "I couldn't really get over them. I put all that behind me, and I'm ready for this new year."
North was on pace to lead Tennessee in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, but by midseason he was battling pain in his feet, which would bleed in practice because he was running so hard and so much, and in his back after taking a hit in a game. He didn't catch a pass against South Carolina and Kentucky.
During spring practice, North was held out of contact, but he says he's back to full health now.
"The training room did well getting me back," he said. "I don't have no problems, actually, with my shoulders. We're all getting back into football conditioning, though.
"I'm not really surprised that it's holding up. Like I said, they did a great job. They didn't really push me to come back until I was ready, so we strengthened it up real good."
That bodes well for North's hopes of having a big junior season.
Physically, North is Tennessee's most impressive receiver, and his large frame should make him a reliable target for quarterback Josh Dobbs, whether it's over the middle of the field on third down or in the red zone on a fade pattern.
He appears to be sharpening the mental side of his game as well.
"I give Marquez a lot of credit," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "He tried to fight through some nagging injuries, and he's worked really hard to get himself back. The thing I like about him right now is he's become a very good student of the game.
"He's always asking the question why, he's always asking for extra help, he's always asking for an extra set of eyes. 'Coach, how's this?' Now when we talk about the maturity in conversations, the level of conversation with him has increased and not just what's his route, but the inter-workings of everything and the small details of getting open. That's what I've really liked.
"He's really, really committed himself to the football intelligence part of it."
Reinstated receiver Von Pearson made his preseason debut Saturday, and though he could work in only a helmet, he was impressive in his return to the field, even making a one-handed snag on a back-shoulder throw during one period.
"I thought Von did some good things," Jones said. "To his credit, he's in very good shape. You could tell just with the football endurance that he's worked at it. We were able to get him routes on air and get him some mental repetitions and after practice get some more. From what I could see of the work that he got in today, I was very pleased with his endurance.
"I thought Von's recall and retention from the spring was very good."
* The coaches continue to shuffle around the offensive linemen in hopes of finding the right combination.
Jashon Robertson, who worked at center Friday, was back at guard, while freshman Chance Hall continued to get looks at left tackle behind Kyler Kerbyson. Coleman Thomas, Dontavius Blair and freshman Drew Richmond continue to work at right tackle. Brett Kendrick got some looks at guard on Saturday.
Marcus Jackson was absent from Saturday's practice for an undisclosed reason.
* Jones said linebacker Kenny Bynum is benefiting from dropping 15 pounds this offseason, which allows him to cover more ground.
"You can tell the difference," he said. "You can tell a major difference. He's athletic, and I like Kenny's attitude, I like his leadership right now. He's very vocal, he's playing with confidence and he looks quicker out there."
Bynum continues to get first-team looks alongside Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and though he's trying to win a starting spot, he continues to help out younger linebackers such as Darrin Kirkland Jr., Dillon Bates and others.
"It's just a part of the game," Bynum said. "Just teaching them the ins and outs, it's great competition. I'm not going to hold back from teaching them just because I might lose my spot. It's for the betterment of the team pretty much."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.